Pro-Russian militants guard barricades near Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine on Wednesday. Russia may be able to annex parts of Eastern Ukraine without an overt invasion, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Europe, said on Friday. (Sergei Grits / AP)
Russia may be able to annex parts of Eastern Ukraine without an overt invasion, the commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Europe said on Friday.
As the Russians did when they annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine earlier this year, Russian “shadow soldiers” — troops masquerading as local gunmen — are seizing buildings and territory in Eastern Ukraine, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said in an interview with National Public Radio.
“I think the Russians have learned from what they saw Crimea, how quickly we were able to attack the false narrative and prove it incorrect; they’re much quicker in Eastern Ukraine to get the local face on their actions after they have moved forward,” said Breedlove, head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
For weeks, Breedlove’s top concern has been whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would send Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine as he did into Crimea, Breedlove said.
“Now, what worries even more is that he may not have to enter Ukraine with his amassed military forces to accomplish his objectives because what is happening now in Eastern Ukraine is creating this perception of lawlessness, inability of the government to respond, etc. ... Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives in Eastern Ukraine without actually using the larger amassed forces, and this is very problematic,” Breedlove said.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO has increased joint exercises and taken other defensive measures, he said. Any Russian provocation in a NATO member, such as Latvia, would be considered an attack on all 28 NATO members.
“You have heard all of the leadership of our nation affirm that we will defend every inch of NATO territory and our NATO allies,” Breedlove said. “This is important: We know there are still Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine — we know this. If we saw Russian military forces or GRU [intelligence] forces in Latvia, [it would become] an issue for NATO.”